‘Cities are becoming the fulcrum for how we manage biodiversity’

As Montreal prepares to host UN Biodiversity Conference, McGill professor Andrew Gonzalez discusses how cities can help protect nature and human health

Global urban populations are projected to increase to nearly five billion by 2030. This ever-expanding urbanization threatens our world’s plant and animal biodiversity and degrades ecosystems through the loss of habitat, biomass and carbon storage. As noted during the recent COP27 climate conference, biodiversity loss is as critical to our planet’s health as the climate crisis.

“Think of the ways in which trees cool urban temperatures in the summer, how wetlands provide resilience during storms, and the many ways in which urban green spaces give us health benefits and provide spaces to play and relax,” says Andrew Gonzalez, Professor and Liber Ero Chair in Biodiversity in the Department of Biology of McGill University. “We need to take a ‘One Health’ approach to nature and human health.”

Founding director of the Quebec Centre for Biodiversity Science(QCBS), Gonzalez has spoken at TEDx and the World Economic Forum on the sixth mass extinction and resilient ecosystems for urban sustainability. Recently, he took part in the G7 Research Summit on One Health held in Lake Louise, Alberta, this November.

Gonzalez will serve as a scientific observer at the COP15 UN Biodiversity Conference, which is convening governments from around the world to agree on global action through 2030 that will halt and reverse nature loss. The conference will be held in Montreal, the seat of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, from December 7 to 19.

Cities as champions of biodiversity

Andrew Gonzalez
Andrew Gonzalez

“Montreal is an example of a city with a grand ambition to protect much of its remaining nature for biodiversity and ecosystem services,” says Gonzalez. (“Ecosystem services” are the many benefits that we get for free from nature, such as carbon storage, pollination, water filtration, and fertile soil.) He notes that cities like Montreal now acknowledge the many ecological, economic, social and health benefits of nature, and are working to protect more of their remaining natural areas from urban development.

The role of cities is recognized in the targets of the new Global Biodiversity Framework to be agreed at COP15. Some of the most effective action towards protecting nature comes from cities and municipalities, says Gonzalez. “They are subnational, but they have a lot of capacity to influence within their metropolitan regions,” he says. “Many mayors, as in Montreal, are some of the biggest champions of biodiversity.”

Cities can work effectively to protect both nature and human health in many ways — by developing greenbelts and protected area networks far beyond their urban cores, by restoring disused spaces and planting trees and other vegetation to establish a resilient urban canopy, and by encouraging citizen groups to protect parks and restore green alleyways.

While stronger legislation is still needed, “cities are becoming the fulcrum for how we manage biodiversity,” says Gonzalez.

A critical mass of biodiversity expertise

McGill and other Quebec universities play a key role through research networks that build a critical mass of biodiversity expertise and facilitate communication with industry and government partners.

The QBSC is host to 105 researchers and 700 graduate students from 13 universities across the province. With Gonzalez as founding director, this McGill-based network fosters the discovery, monitoring, and sustainable use of biodiversity in Quebec, Canada, and around the world.

The QCBS is working with the Quebec government to develop a biodiversity observing network for the province. “The environment ministry of Quebec (the MDDELCC) came to us and asked: How can we monitor ecosystems in a way that gives a better understanding of biodiversity trends and supports smarter decisions about the use of our land and waters, while protecting biodiversity?”

The QCBS is also host to GEO BON, the Group on Earth Observations Biodiversity Observation Network. This international network of 2,300 experts is dedicated to monitoring the state of nature around the world. The ambition is to build a global observing system for nature just like the global climate observing system climate scientists have to monitor the climate. GEO BON collaborates with space agencies — such as NASA and the European Space Agency — to assess the state of ecosystems globally.

“We’re working to take the pulse of nature on a daily basis,” says Gonzalez, who serves as GEO BON co-chair. “We’re engaging not only with the space industry, but also with scientists who observe and measure nature on the ground, and we’re working to bring those two communities together.”

The “multiplier” effect

Gonzalez is also a co-lead of the “Adapting Urban Environments” theme of the McGill Sustainability Systems Initiative (MSSI), a network that connects researchers across the natural sciences, engineering, social sciences, and humanities.

Research conducted by Gonzalez’s team has led to publications that summarize our understanding of how urban growth and sprawl is impacting nature in and around cities. “We know that urban growth tends to destroy habitat and fragment what’s left, to the detriment of the remaining biodiversity and ecosystem services that people depend upon,” says Gonzalez.

He notes, however, there are proven ways to mitigate impacts and to restore and protect habitats. He points to a recent paper, a case study in southern Quebec, which he co-authored with one of his master’s students, Valentin Lucet. Their research shows that reforestation and protection of habitat can be achieved strategically to slow the loss of habitat and allow it to persist — even in the face of future urban growth and land-use change.

Gonzalez was also a co-investigator on the landmark research initiative, the Montérégie Connection project, which focused on the rapidly suburbanizing agricultural landscape east of Montreal. The research team investigated how current and historic landscape structure influenced the provision of ecosystem services. Now completed, the project was the launching pad for the NSERC-funded strategic network named “ResNet,” led by Elena Bennett, Professor in Natural Resources Sciences at McGill, a collaboration of industry, government, NGO, and Indigenous partners working to promote sustainable and resilient ecosystems across Canada.

Gonzalez describes all these research networks as “multipliers” — interdisciplinary collaborations that build new partnerships among researchers and stakeholders and accelerate the translation of science into action.

“We build more effective scientific communities by working together across disciplines,” says Gonzalez. “Quebec should be proud of this expertise. We punch above our weight because we collaborate effectively.”

Listen to Andrew Gonzalez discuss COP15